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Flape: The solution to big data storage?

Flape: The solution to big data storage?

The first time the term FLAPE appeared on the IT scene was in Summer of 2014. At that time the debate on whether the tape was dead or not was still a hot topic, and lobbyists from all sides of the table – HDD, SSD, and Flash as well as storage system producers – were arguing over the media as well as the internet.

At the same time, analysts from Wikibon presented new research showing that over a period of 10 years, retaining data is best done when using a combination of Flash and Tape. The research showed that the combination of Flash and Tape has the highest functionality and bandwidth, with very moderate pricing. The research also claimed that over the 10 year period, enterprises that use this combination could save 300% of their overall IT budget.

With these results in hand, researcher David Floyer from Wikibon argued that storage system manufacturers should now develop new FLAPE product lines for clients; stating that IBM or Oracle would be the most likely candidates to develop a combined FLAPE system.

From his point of view, there are six common use cases for FLAPE: archiving, backup, long-term retention, scale-out NAS, as a tier in multi-tier storage schemes and for the cloud.

The use of Flape today

Now almost 4 years later, the topic has begun to gain momentum. With FLASH getting cheaper, tape media space getting bigger, and disks seemingly having reached the end of further technology advances, FLAPE seems to be the solution to the ever-increasing demand for storage in the age of big data.

Callin Sanchez, VP of Enterprise Storage Development at IBM, stated in an interview at the IBM Interconnect 2017, that the company has instructed its global engineering team to figure out how to better connect the two worlds in one single system.

Even though Sanchez points out in that interview that the main use of a Flape system is archiving, it seems that IBM believes that Flape could be a less expensive and more reliable solution for long-term big data analysis.

This is an approach that reaches far beyond just archiving, which – as Floyer pointed out – is still much cheaper done solely with tape. Flape (or a Hybrid tape approach as it is also sometimes called) is a new way to handle complex workflows in a storage tiering architecture.

Two becomes one

The solution is to manage both Flash and Tape under one management software solution. This approach is very much related to the Software-defined Storage (SDS) approach. With this approach, data is managed automatically and files will be transferred and placed by the FLAPE storage systems software.

This software layer could be based, for example on the IBM Spectrum Scale File System as well as IBM Spectrum Protect (for the Tivoli TSM tape backup solution). Using, combining and further developing these currently available solutions would have the great advantage that with such a solution tape storage hardware could be easily added to such a system as a storage tier and data could be moved from one tier to another inside Spectrum Scale. However, no information on the details of the management layer being used has leaked outside IBM.

Keeping costs down

Other reasons for IBM and Cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others – who are in desperate need to get their own storage costs down – to focus on Flape, is that there is not much development in the hard disk technology, while both Flash and tape are breaking the technology border.

Regarding sequential read speeds of big files, normally figures of around 80-160 MB/s with normal 7200 RPM hard disk drive are achieved and the best results hardly exceed 250 MB/s. And those figures haven´t changed for several years now.

One such breakthrough was seen last year when IBM Research announced a record-breaking success when they managed to store 330 TB of uncompressed data on a palm-sized tape cartridge. That equals an astonishing 201 gigabits per square inch, which was saved on a Sony prototype sputtered magnetic tape. Current users can already buy the latest go-to-market LTO7 tapes which hold 15 TB of compressed data. The LTO consortium (IBM, HP, and Quantum) released a new LTO roadmap extending to LTO 12, which will in the future hold up to 480 TB compressed data per cartridge.

Best of both worlds

The new LTO7-Generation of tapes, however, achieves speeds of up to 750 MB/s and Flash-based consumer drives like the Samsung 850 Pro or the SanDisk Extreme Pro already achieve speeds of 550 MB/s read and 520 MB/s write – which is more than double the speed of a normal HDD.  In addition to that, FLASH chips are getting cheaper every year, so mixing the two technologies, which have both their own unique advantages, makes a perfect combination in the future for a variety of use cases.

Find more information on FLAPE here: https://www.lto.org/2015/09/flape-flash-and-tape-archival-pairing/

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Picture copyright: Kroll Ontrack GmbH, Germany